What I thought would be a routine check-in with my boss turned out to be a meeting that’s etched forever in my mind. I can still recall which sofas in his office we sat in, what I was wearing, my body language, the exact words we used, the cold sweat that I broke into …
Things had been rough for a few months, a lot of very senior folks and dear friends across countries were being shown the door – entire divisions were being merged or shut down. Funnily, it never occurred to me that it could happen to me. Me, the hotshot who’d just led the launch of a cool new product and helped shape a comprehensive strategic plan for the company. Me, the hotshot who had access to very senior leaders and worked on some visibly successful projects...
And so I walked out from this meeting with my head spinning, my ego shattered, no roles in the company that fit my strengths or interests, and with four months to figure things out. After the initial shock, denial and anger, I gradually realized that I was being selfish. Yes, selfish. Throughout my career, I hadn’t batted an eyelid before jumping companies, but felt betrayed when I realized it’s a two-way street.
And I was being unnecessarily emotional - the self-imposed stigma about getting laid-off, the self-pity, and the feeling of unfairness. Operating from this mindset, I was struggling to think through my choices and next steps. I spent a lot of time talking to my wife, mentors, close friends, people who’d been through this before, and reading up tons of material that opened up new ways of looking at career choices.
I’m also more spiritual now, grateful for His benevolence, and with a deep faith that this is a world of abundance, one which will give you exactly what you need when you need it. I’ve condensed my thoughts into three subsequent posts: (1) accept that this could happen to you; (2) get rid of the baggage; (3) now, what do you do?
GET REAL – IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU
It’s a tough world – get used to it
Success is fleeting. Your stellar results will be forgotten in the blink of an eye. Two quarters of slowing earnings and investor pressure will lead to the inevitable – cut costs when revenues are soft. Investors care only about their quarterly EPS. Your CEO is accountable to them and will need to take those tough and unpopular calls on the people front.
It’s not about you – he’s saving the company, protecting its shareholders – just doing his job. Every quarter, and every year. It’s a very rare company that can keep Wall Street happy and at the same time keep investing for the long term.
Quote Prem Watsa on his offer to buy Blackberry for $4.7B recently: "It has landed on hard times but we think it will flourish over time in a private setting, as a private company where there is no speculation as to what happens every quarter or every six months and the management team can focus on building it over the long term …”
Nobody is indispensable. Nobody. Competition is brutal, entire industries are getting upended, and companies have to re-invent themselves drastically just to survive. Sometimes, this will mean your skills / role are no longer relevant or at the very least not a priority in the near term. Faced with a choice between keeping the engines running for the next two quarters vs. funding your project that calls for large, multi-year investments, guess what the company is going to do.
Bottom-line: you’re dispensable, so be prepared – all the time.
Being on good terms with your boss ≠ guaranteed employment So you get along famously with your boss, and he’s trusted you with critical projects that you’ve delivered flawlessly. Firing you is going to look bad on him as your leader. Expect to be offered a role that nobody wants and/or takes you ten years back in your career. A fancy title, a job description so nebulous that nobody will figure out what you do …. same difference, except that this time, you’ll quit. If you are as fortunate as I am to work for a respected company, they will do what’s right and give you a gracious exit with your head held high, and hopefully a generous severance package.
Take it. With both hands and a big dose of gratitude.
The higher you are the more likely – and effective - your redundancy. In tough times, your company needs more doers than thinkers. Your leader would rather keep the troops and let go of a general. Your going away delivers more bang for buck, and is less painful than having to let go of ten junior folk to hit the same $ target. Put crudely, removing you is just one row on an excel sheet to delete, vs. having to goal-seek about twenty others …. and the PR damage is more containable.
And oh, by the way, your company will end up “de-layering management for more effective decision making and rapid execution yada yada” – wow, two birds with one stone!
GET OVER IT
After the sudden loss of your regular paycheck, perhaps what’s hardest to take is the sense of inadequacy … What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? What do I lack?
While these are useful questions to introspect, this is not the time for them. Right now, what you need is a healthy – perhaps oversized - sense of self-worth and confidence. As hard as it seems, you’ve got to trust yourself to pull through. To quote Steve Jobs: “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”.
And oh! The classic trap of “What will they say?” – worrying about what your friends & ex-colleagues will say about you. Save yourself the bother. People think about you much less than you think they do. It’s but natural for people to be selfish in these tough times.
Unless they can and will help you, you’ve got better things to worry about – like finding a job.
It’s not about you. It’s no reflection on your technical or leadership competencies. Someone many miles and hierarchies away made a bunch of stupid calls - or worse was too complacent to take decisions when he needed to, and ran the company to the ground. And hey, you’re paying the price.
These days, recruiters and hiring managers accept getting laid off as a perfectly valid reason to be looking for a job, there’s no stigma attached. None, unless you imagine it.
Level with them. Do yourself a favor and level with your prospective employers and recruiters. It’ll get the load off your chest, and earn you respect for being transparent and resilient.
By trying to sugar-coat the real reason you’re looking for a job, you’re likely going to end up antagonizing the very people who can help. To quote CK Guruprasad at Heidrick & Struggles: “a good head-hunter or a recruiter can figure out that these are just euphemisms for being fired or being laid off from your last job! And the problem is that, if this is actually the case, these excuses sound more like lies or like you are trying to cover up something unpleasant. And that need not be the case!”
Find a soul-mate. As innocuous as this seems, your spouse / significant other / parent / best friend – whatever – will always understand you best and really know what’s going on between those ears. Partner with them, they can make your journey so much more stress-free.
Take stock and prepare
Take a hard look at your experience so far and pick out recurring themes that point to inherent strengths. Invest time and effort in tools like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, talk to trained coaches and recruiters to understand how they look at career planning and hiring. Lastly, spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting your resume – if required, get professional help.
Take a close look at how you define your opportunity set
Are you merely a banker or travel professional or fmcg sales guy? Or could you think laterally about expanding your choice set? I looked back at my retail, payments and mobile services experience to identify e-commerce and e-payments as a potential fit. And so my next gig. As part of my search, I went as far as talking to IT companies that serve these industries.
The wider you cast your net, the more interesting people you’ll meet; you’d be surprised at the kind of opportunities that’ll come your way. Who knows, you could start out on an entirely new and rewarding career you’d never have thought about if you hadn’t got laid off to begin with.
Keep an open mind – think beyond designation
Take a hard look at what you’re really good at and what you’d love to be doing for forty hours a week. This post is not about discovering your strengths, purpose, etc. Far wiser people have written far better stuff on these subjects. My message is for you to define your skills in a way that brings out your strengths yet doesn’t lock you to a specific role or industry. E.g. you’re great at spotting consumer insights and translating them into new product ideas and eventually new businesses. As opposed to “head of New Product Development at ABC Co.”. You’ll be surprised at the breadth of opportunities out there if you look outside your comfort zone.
Start networking – NOW - like your life depends on it (oh yes, it does!)
To use a mountain-biking analogy, you’ve got to shift gears before you hit the incline, not mid-way up. If you’re reading this post, you’re either laid off, suspect that you might, or are generally curious about moving ahead. Good. Start now. Don’t wait till you have to look for a job. Mr. Guruprasad says it well: “Finding a job is a full-time job!”
Once you’ve identified interesting companies in your opportunity set, reach out to the business folks in your domain, hopefully people you’ve worked with / met professionally. Don’t limit yourself to current openings and their hiring managers. Sometimes, a chat with a senior business leader can open up a position where none existed, if your fit is that good. It takes time, patience and self-awareness to figure this one out, something I’ll deal with in a separate post.
Do a zero-based budget, sort it out with your significant other
You could be faced with having to take a salary cut – either because you couldn’t find anything better in time or because the opportunity at hand is so compelling that a lower pay seems a fair trade. Unless your sole aim in life is to grow your pay packet by X% every year for eternity, take an honest look at what lifestyle is acceptable and what it really takes in hard cash to support it. At the cost of reduced savings in the short run, can you pick up new skills, a whole new career path – or hey, start your own gig?
Headhunters are paid by their clients – you are their means
The headhunters who really matter all work on a mandate, and rarely on a contingency (which is to help a guy like you in need). They will lend you a patient ear, and make sure you’re properly slotted into their database, but don’t hold your breath hoping to hear back from them unless they’re working on a mandate where you matter. Don’t blame them, they’re just doing their job.
Make headhunters your Plan B. The best jobs are rarely out in the open, and almost always discovered through conversations with business leaders in your target companies. I found this post particularly relevant.
Pay it forward
It’ll take an incredible coincidence of opportunity, timing, serendipity, and help from others to land your next gig. Then, remember that you’re not the only guy who’s going through a tough time. And you’ll have a few warm leads that you were working on before you accepted the offer you did. Pass it on, make another guy’s life a tad easier. You get back what you give.
Getting laid (off) could be the best thing that happens to you, provided you look at things in perspective, and have a chin-up, can-do approach. At the very least, it’ll make you a much humbler and grounded professional, keenly aware of your fallibility. And that’s a good thing.
PS: Six months later, I am in a fabulous role and doing the best work of my career so far. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a good thing I got laid off from my earlier job, else I’d never have discovered the role I’m in today, having a blast and being able to tell you a good story.